Anticipation Builds on Easter Island for Sunday's Total Solar Eclipse
Some of Easter Island's famous stone Moai statues stood more than 30 feet high and weighed up to 82 tons.
Credit: Terry Hunt/University of Hawaii, Manoa

The total solar eclipse Sunday may only be visible to a lucky cadre of die-hard skywatchers spread across the southern Pacific Ocean, but that hasn't dampened spirits at remote spots like Easter Island ? where tourists and scientists have flocked to catch the celestial show.

The best seats on Earth for the total solar eclipse are on Easter Island and other islands and atolls along a southern Pacific Ocean path that stretches from a spot just north of New Zealand to the tip of South America. Thousands of tourists are expected at Easter Island alone, drawn by both the looming cosmic show and the island's mysterious history.

"Here on Easter Island, I am very hopeful," Williams College astronomer Jay Pasachoff told SPACE.com from the remote location.  Pasachoff and two students flew out to Easter Island to observe the total solar eclipse to study the sun's corona. 

The corona is the ultra-hot outer atmosphere of the sun and can only be seen during solar eclipses. During total eclipse, when the disk of the sun is entirely blocked by the moon, the corona is suddenly visible as bright, wispy tendrils that can be safely viewed with the naked eye. (Protective glasses are required to watch the phases of the eclipse before and after totality. Viewing the sun?s disk directly can cause permanent eye damage.) [Total solar eclipse photos.]

"It would be wonderful if the weather cooperates so that I can see my 51st solar eclipse on Sunday," Pasachoff said in an e-mail.

Pasachoff is hoping for clear weather because this will be the only total solar eclipse of 2010. The next one won't occur until 2012.

Unlike last year's total solar eclipse, which lasted more than 6 minutes and was touted as the longest of the 21st century, this year's event will offer up to 4 minutes and 41 seconds of totality when the moon blots out the sun. For viewers watching the eclipse from Easter Island, the event will begin at 18:41 UT (12:41 p.m. local time).

Sunday's solar eclipse will be visible across a narrow corridor that stretches across more than 1,000 miles. (This graphic shows the ground track depicting where this total eclipse of 2010 will be visible from and when.)

But that path passes over just a few areas of land, including the Cook Islands, Easter Island, some French Polynesian atolls and the southern tip of South America. Eclipse hunters have gathered at many of these locations, as well as on chartered cruise ships, just to see the eclipse.

Charles Fulco, a space and environmental systems coordinator for schools in Port Chester, N.Y., told SPACE.com that the excitement at the end of the eclipse's path is mounting. Fulco is with a group hoping to watch the eclipse from the Patagonia region of Argentina, with the Andes mountains as a backdrop.

Cloudy weather, he said, is the biggest fear.

"We're all keeping our fingers crossed," Fulco said in an e-mail. "The scenery is completely amazing."

A beautiful sight

Even NASA scientists are expecting a stunning show.

"It's going to be a beautiful sight," said Lika Guhathakurta of NASA's Heliophysics Division in Washington DC., in a Friday statement.

Guhathakurta has seen more than eight solar eclipses in different observation points, including busy cities, lonely deserts and remote mountain peaks. But she expects Sunday's event could the most dazzling she's seen yet.

"The South Pacific eclipse could top them all," Guhathakurta said.

Guhathakurta said the chance to see the sun's corona makes the rare sight of a total solar eclipse even better.

"You can only see this while you are standing inside the shadow of the moon," she said. "It is a rare and special experience."

NASA scientists have been monitoring the sun's corona using the twin STEREO satellites that watch the sun from positions ahead and behind the Earth.

After studying that data, Guhathakurta predicts the corona will appear as four ghostly-white streamers, two on either side of the sun, that stretch out two to three degrees, forming a gossamer "X" in the sky with a black hole (the moon) at the center.

"I'm prepared to be wrong," Guhathakurta said. "This is the first time anyone has tried to make such a forecast using STEREO data. It will be interesting to see if it works."

Solar eclipse from space

Six astronauts might get to see the eclipse from a remote, but very different, island. But their island is a largest structure ever built by humans in space: The International Space Station flying 220 miles (354 km) above Earth.

The eclipse should be visible to astronauts on the station as the sun appears to rise over the Earth's limb ? or horizon, NASA officials said. 

"The sun does rise while eclipsed by the moon," NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told SPACE.com from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "A noticeable bite out of the sun might be visible as the sun rises through the Earth's atmosphere."

Because of the location of the space station at the time of the eclipse, the astronauts will not be able to see the moon's shadow on Earth as they have during past solar eclipses, Humphries said.

But NASA's Mission Control team in Houston did send a special note to the space station crew telling the six astronauts living onboard when and where to look on Sunday if they want to try and see the eclipse.

Sunday is an off-duty day for the station astronauts and the eclipse will occur near the end of their day. But whether any crewmembers want to observe the event is strictly their own choice, Humphries said.

The International Space Station is currently home to three American astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts.

One of the Americans, NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock, has been posting photos from space on Twitter under the name Astro_Wheels, and may be the best chance for any solar eclipse photos. After all, Wheelock did snap a photo of the partial lunar eclipse on June 26.

"The view from Earth orbit of the Lunar Eclipse during Saturday?s beautiful full moon," Wheelock wrote at the time. "The eclipse in progress with the Earth?s shadow moving across the surface of the moon, simply breath-taking! The Master?s handiwork."

Humphries said Wheelock and his station crewmates are not scheduled for any activities during the upcoming total solar eclipse because it will occur just before their scheduled sleep time.